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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  March 20, 2017 6:30am-7:01am PDT

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good evening from los angeles, i'm tavis smiley. tonight a look back at our conversation with director barry jenkins. his film "moonlight" won three academy awards at last month's oscars ceremony. best supporting actor, best adapted screenplay, and most prestigious best picture in the now-infamous onstage mixup. we're glad you've joined us. a conversation with director barry jenkins in just a moment. ♪"moonlight". test. ♪
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>> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> we shall see what happens on oscar night, february 26th. what we already know is that barry jenkins is the first african-american to have a film that he wrote and directed land in all three of the major oscar categories. and should he take home the oscar statue as best director, he would be first black director to do so in the history of the academy. the film captures what it feels like to be a poor black kid growing up in the projects of miami. the film succeeds i think by
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telling the universal story through a young man's cathartic personal struggles. before we commence our conversation, here's a scene from "moonlight" featuring oscar nominee naomie harris. >> sharon? hey? hey, baby? where did you go last night? >> what? what? >> i'm your mama, ain't i? why you ain't just come home later, boy? you had me worried about you. i guess you're grown. i can't be keeping up with you all the time. anyway, baby, i ain't seen you since the funeral. mama locked herself out the door -- can you come let her in?
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come on, baby. baby, come on. >> i heard you whisper to me when that clip played, "this is a tough scene." >> yes. >> what did you mean by that? >> i think when you are watching someone as gifted and talented as naomie harris basically embody memories from your past, embody your mom in this very tough moment, just -- to direct it was tough and to watch it is tough. very dark. >> give me a better sense of where you overlay some of your story in with the story of the author that makes for the film? >> both myself and terrell avril mcclainy who wrote "moonlight: black boys with blue," we grew up in the neighborhood you saw depicted, liberty city. >> you didn't know each other
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then. >> didn't know each other. we went to some of the same schools, we're about eight month apa -- eight months apart in age. we felt like we should have knew each other because our moms struggled with the addiction of crack-cocaine that you see depicted in the film. and so pretty much everywhere except sexuality, myself and terrell's life overlapped. >> what do you make of the serendipity of that? >> it's one of those things where i'll speak to this -- you know, for a long time i didn't want to tell the story. i wasn't comfortable talking about these things. it took randomly meeting, becoming friends with terrell in the 33rd year of our lives, you know, to see that he had gone to this place so that i could have courage to speak on it. amazing the way the world conspires. >> tell me about how cathartic or not the experience has bad news for you to tell the story
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not just on screen but obviously in these conversations when you -- when the subject comes up, you're obviously sharing more about your personal journey. has that been ka that sonic what's it been for you -- cathartic? what's that t been for you? >> cathartic is right word. it's nuanced depending on the conversation, who i'm having it with. for my mom and i, it's been a progressive experience. it allowed us to progress in our friendship and our relationship. i think the act of making the movie for me with her was coming to a point where we didn't think things we went through was anything to be ashamed of. it wasn't anything to bury or to hide. on the flip side, there are people from all over who hit me up on twitter, instagram, things like that, who have been through the same experiences. what we all realize is we get to the point where we feel like we can't talk about there with other people. we think either people will shun us or they'll pity us. and i think in -- in dealing with things so openly, i must
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say, it's gotten to the point where it's a part of my story, like everybody else has a story to tell. >> can i ask -- if i can't, you can slap me. can i ask -- >> barry jenkins came on the show --. happening. >> then he laughs as he said it. >> not happening. >> may i ask what the relationship is like these days between you and your mother? >> it's good. it's productive. for a long time we didn't talk about these things. i said, i don't know that my mom is ready to watch this film. i don't think she wants to see herself reflected in this way. i think it's a very honest depiction. she read every interview naomie harris has begin and signed off on the approach to playing her. someone was like, no, i think she doesn't want to see how the character is affected by things you went through. i was like, oh, i guess -- yeah. i can see where you're coming
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from. >> to your knowledge at this point your mother has not seen it? >> still has not seen it. i think she doesn't want to watch with an audience. i think she wants to watch it by herself. i sent her a dvd ahead of the release. she can pop it in at her leisure. >> what do you expect will happen after she sees it? >> i think she'll be proud because everyone else in my family has seen it. you know, everyone's extremely proud. including my sister who was probably the closest person in my family who also went through these things. i think she'll be proud of the work and see -- i think the portrayal is full of tenderness in the appropriate places. i think it's very honest and raw in other places. i'm still here, i think that's the most important thing. >> you couldn't have done it if you weren't. i'm glad you are -- naomie was here a few weeks ago. we had a great conversation when she came to visit. i'm not saying this because you're here, i'm saying it because it's true. i'm fortunate enough to talk to
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people on this program every night and on the radio. and i travel around the country, i'm always in conversations with all kinds of people in airports and hotels and restaurants. i have not gone anywhere and had a conversation with anybody, race, color, gender, sexual orientation, i've not had a conversation with anybody who saw this film and didn't love it. every single person i talked to who has seep the film including half of my crew here loved the film. they love it in part because no matter who they are, no matter what, you know, they are made of, there's something universal about the story that everybody connects to. and that's what i think a great film is. it allows all of us to wrestle with and revel in our own humanity and that of other people. i'm curious, having said that, how you take a film that is this specific about an experience that most americans do not have, typically those who have seen this film, and yet they connect
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to it. what -- how did you pull that off? >> you know, the one thing i said is because we weren't trying to pull it off. i think we sort of tried to lean in and made the most specific film we could -- >> the black folks in the project is not a universal story -- >> you know, it's not, but it is. it is in the sense that i think we can all identify with no matter where you are, you know, whether you're in the projects in miami or you're growing up with a silver spoon in your mouth in rotterdam, where i just came from. i think we can all identify with the aspect that we move in the world, and the world has given us all this response. the world is telling us, that thing you did, that was cool. that other thing you did, not so cool. and we receive that, and we go, oh, i'm not going to do this thing even though i feel it's the right thing. even though i feel it's who i am. i think everybody can identify, you know, with the struggle to decide for yourself, you know, who you are. and what your place in life is. and i think because we -- we tell that struggle but we don't try to codify it any other way
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than to have fidelity to the world's set in, the place and things myself and the playwright went through. i think people respect that. and i think they respect us for inviting them in. i do think the film is not told in a way that's meant to manipulate an audience into identifying with it. tractor-traile it is an inviting experience. we literally invite the audience to walk a mile in our shoes. we allow you to look into the eyes of our characters and to be in the body of the characters. i think people relish that and appreciate it. >> yeah. i've also heard from countless people -- these are not cinematographers who belong to the union but people who go to see film who in their own way have tried to share how much they love the way the film was shot. to a lay person watching this conversation tonight, what -- what trick -- what did you do to pull us in regarding the way you
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shot this -- >> yeah, you know, the biggest trick i would say is if i tell you i'm making a movie about a poor black boy growing up in the hood with a mom, addicted to drugs, strong in sexuality, you think you know what that film looks like. it's a drab, social realist documentary kind of film. we wanted this to be rooted in the consciousness of our main character. shyrone has a huge interior life even though he's not expressing himself verbally as much as other characters around him. there are times when characters disorient him like the scene with naomie harris in the courtyard. we want to go in slow motion, look the character right in the eye. there are so many places where things defy the expectations of the setup of the scene because we're in the interior mind of the character. you know, i think another aspect of it is film as a medium, you know, has only been around for 120 years. hasn't changed much. film emotion was calibrated to photograph white skin. those are the people who could afford to buy the kodak
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instamatic cameras. we have the light in the room, we put powder on people. in this film i remember black folks sweating. you know, i remember the skin replenishing itself, being moist, that's alive. in this film the make-up person was told no powder, only oil. you got grapeseed oil, jojoba oil, shea butter, to allow skin to reflect the light. i think our visual approach because it's coming from my memory of what it felt like to live this experience, and we're allowing ourselves to be rooted in the collection of the character, it arrives fresh and different. i think people when they see the images, receive them, they feel like they're seeing things for the first time even though they may have seen a story like there before, they haven't seen it told in this way. the visuals have a lot to do with that. >> it must make you feel awfully good to know that not only is the film nominated, screenplay, adapted screenplay, film for best picture, as i said earlier, best director for you. you have two cast members
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nominated for big awards. talk to me about the casting. clearly in retrospect it was brilliant casting. when naomie was here -- i wish i had the clip. >> queen naomie harris. >> i remember her telling me when she was here, barry, that you got -- you guys shot this really quick. how many days? >> 25 days. >> not a big budget? >> under $2 million. >> okay. how did you know that these were the right people to cast not just to play these roles but to give you what you needed in 25 days? that's -- 25 days ain't a lot of time to make a bunch of mistakes. >> true. >> if do something in 25 days, you better get the right people because the scope and time is limited. tell me about obviously the brilliance of your casting given that the academy has nominated two of your actors.
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>> the first part was we gave ourselves a lot of time to find the right people. you know, with naomie and mahershala, we knew they would be great. and naomie is the only actor who appears in all three chapters of the film. everybody else walks on for the story, and we have a different person in chapter two and three. naomie has to literally convey that she's become a different person. we needed somebody better skilled for the part. we took the time to find her. same with mehershala. the other actors, it was like the presence, this essence. film is not an amazing medium to relay this. but we have a character retreating into himself, so we needed the interior life to be visible on his exterior. the expression, the body posture. we just gave ourselves -- we shot in 25 days. we cast for about 16 months. it was like, you know, you figure out where you need the
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time, and time was in casting. luckily, we eventually -- we started to build it in blocks. we'd find one actor, find a different actor. eventually i think we got to this place where we had a group of people who had the soulfulness. they believed in the material. they believed in the characters, and they believed in the film. when they showed up, you know, what i like to say is a person like mahershal as only in one-third of the film but gave his full self. i think everybody in this film gave their full self. i got to mention about the nominations, thank you for saying how widespread they were. this movie took a village. there was no other way than everybody pitching in. what i love about the eight nominations, it's spread across the whole gamut of the film. you move any one part, it's the same project. >> let me ask you to set your modesty aside. i found myself in the same position a couple of years ago when damian chazelle broke out. lord has he broken out.
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this -- lord, he has broken out. this young man has done a lot since i met him. i recall having him in this chair and asking him what i'm going to ask you -- tell me about your back story. once you're on the scene, everybody knows your film, talking about your film. we don't know you. tell me about your journey professionally about taking the opportunity to make the masterpiece. >> it starts with a film school. i'm a public school kid. i grew up like the kid in movie. florida state, you could go if you had a certain gpa. i went on a free tuition scholarship paid for by the florida lottery. >> shout out to the florida lottery. >> shout out to the florida lottery. the state of florida back then, i think it was run a bit differently. the state of florida wanted to drive the film industry in the state so they built a film school. they invited florida kids into the program. it was a beautiful situation. as someone who grew up poor, they provided the equipment, the
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stocks all these things. i got into film school, didn't know anything about it. over the course of two years, got kind of good at it. i had a brief moment where i recent sure if i could do it -- where i wasn't sure if i could do it. i didn't know light exposed film. i grew up poor, black -- i thought people like me aren't meant to be good at this. of course, over the course of two years, i did the work. i taught myself how to shoot my own film. instead of watching what i thought was the best in world cinema, i trained myself on how to do this. i moved out here. i worked at miss winfrey's company, harpo films, and then "watching god." six years later i made lie budget, $13,000 independent film. and it kind of got me put on. you know, at caa, plan b, saw the film. i tried to work on a few things that didn't work out. six years after the first film, i wrote this. and i've worked at this film festival in telluride called the telluride film festival.
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been there since 2002. i used to make popcorn, an usher, cleaned toilets, did everything. grew up there as a kid. by 2013, at that point, i'm introducing films and programming short films. i write the screenplay and come back, i twloet in brussels, bell -- i wrote this in brussels, belgium. there's a little movie "12 years a slave" that premiered in telluri telluride. i come off the stage, they're like, barry jenkins, we know who you are. what are you up to? and i said, i directed this and three years later we have "moonlight" and have nominations -- i speed read that. >> you didn't have to go that far, but i'm glad you laid it out. i ask because it's not just instructive and empowering, but it's important for people who are kicked around in social media to know the back story. people know your al gore you but
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don't know the back story. >> that's true. >> people are struggling in film, with whatever it is they want to become. it's important to hear a story of what happens and what the process is to get you where you need to be. you look up and get the right material. lo and behold, you have eight academy award nominations. >> i think for a lot of people, it seems like i appeared five months ago. >> that's never the case. >> no, it's never the case. ain't the case with damian. it's not the case with me. i think i have been fortunate in a lot of ways. not everybody works for telereside film festival. not everybody -- telluride film festival. not everybody ghosts produce a film starring brad -- not everybody gets to produce a film starring brad pitt. it started with my being a kid who wanted to work at a film festival, then i kept at it. and not that i always had faith that something like this would happen, what's happening with "moonlight." but i loved the work. i sometimes teach kids film classes. i say be in love with the process, not the results. and the process will el e generate the results. i think that's been the case with this film certainly, and
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with the whole course of my career so far. >> yeah. so you have been around long enough to see the juxtaposition between what didn't happen last year with black folk at the academies and what is happening this year for black folk at the academies. what do you make of the year? >> you know, i wish we could go back in time and then place these same five minutes into last -- these same films into last year. we'd have data to compare. all these films started 3.5, 4, 5 years ago, 7 years ago in the case of "fences." beautifully they've all arrived at this moment. i was in the room when "hidden figures" won. it was an amazing feeling. again, we all happened to arrive at this moment. what happened last year -- not that it was necessary, but i think it made people pay attention. i compare it to the rooney rule from the nfl. for the longest time, why weren't their black head coaches? you had to interview candidates.
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>> absolutely. >> i think with the oscar so white, it's a situation where if i tell you about my film, the synopsis, you might assume i know that film, i know what it looks like, i don't need watch that. now, i need to sit up and pay attention, watch that film. lo and behold, it's not what i expected. i think that this year is different because the mandate has been created where it's like, no, we can't get away with looking the other way or overlooking or looking past some of the work. i think the industry i work in is not a homogeneous industry. everyone this year, i'm glad we have a group of nominees that are more reflective of not only the world i work in but the world i live in. it was more important today that happen six weeks ago. >> speaking service the world we live in and the s.a.g. awards, there were a lot of good speeches. a handful of great speeches. mr. ali's speech, i thought, was just phenomenal. >> yeah. >> you know him because you
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directed him. gave you a huge shout out. how did you intake what he was saying in that moment? it was powerful. >> yeah. it was. you know, ali is a great man. i call him ali, mehershala is a great man. in his greatness, i think he is very modest. he doesn't place himself at the forefront of many things. by necessity maybe, i don't know. i was proud that he stood up and said what he said. i think that based on what's happened the last few days, i think a lot of us are feeling threatened. i think for mehershala, he 's felt threatened more than us. it's not a good feeling knowing that religion could lead you to being persecuted in the country you love. i would say speaking on behalf of him. i thought he was just in saying what he said. i thought it came from the heart.
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and not that it needed to be said. but i was damn glad it was said. >> yeah. how are you processing this? i see they're on the ground now -- >> yeah. you know -- there's a lot going on that is bigger than me. i am the kid in this film, terrell and i are the kid in this film. if you watch this movie, you don't assume a character like this is going to grow up and win a golden globe. he'll be nominated for eight academy awards. i think people at home see what's happening to me and take pride and joy in it. they see it as this thing that's possible. you know, it expands the world of what people like us, we're from this place, are capable of. i think because of that, i have to stay grounded. i have to be strong for folks that are rooting for us. at the same time, my job is to carry the voice of this movie as far as i can. you know, i just got back from two weeks in europe, seven different estates. despite the myth that black -- different cities. despite the myth that black folks, images don't travel overseas, this one is traveling
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damn well overseas. i think doing good work absolutely keeps me grounded. and i remember what it was like almost 25 days in the heat of miami when all these group of people who knew nothing about me, did not have any expectations of academy awards, were working their -- off because they believe in the project. i think having the pride and remembering what the work was like, the process, i think it keeps me a little buffeted from the results whether they go good or bad. >> that's a very adult way to handle it. >> i'm trying, bro. i'm trying. >> a mature way -- >> i'm going to wake up the day after the academy awards, and i'm going to have a blank page like every other writer. back to square one. >> i guess the sense that you'reual you're all in. i look ford having you back for many years to come. honored. thank you, my friend. that's our show for tonight. and as always, keep the faith. ♪
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>> give me your head. let your head rest in my hand. i've got you. i promise you. i'm not going to let you go. man, i've got you. there you go. ten seconds. ♪ >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org. hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with academy award award winner matthew mcconaughey. that's next time. we'll see you then. ♪
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>> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> be more, pbs.
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